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Cool Characters 

A burst of original talent lit up stages recently. Le Chat Noir hosted its fifth annual New Plays Festival, featuring the winning entries of the one-act play contest -- scripts by Laura Watson, David Hoover, Christian Bordelon and Gabrielle Reisman. While, over at the CAC, Jade Esteban Estrada performed his one-man musical, Icons -- for which he also wrote the text and the lyrics and composed the music.

Space is limited, alas. So here's a review of a comic hit from the Le Chat Festival, plus Estrada's remarkable solo.

Gabrielle Reisman's The Polar Bear Exhibit was an ursine mellow drama. Donald Lewis and Derrick Deal played Tea Kettle bear and Larry bear. Their main source of entertainment was an occasional swim in the pool. Of course, if you're used to swimming miles through the ocean in search of a nice, tasty seal, then a pool might seem just a tad anticlimactic. This humiliating reduction of scale was wryly captured in the play by a plastic inflatable kid's wading pond filled with white styrofoam peanuts. When Tea Kettle bear (Deal) dives in, the effect is exquisitely ludicrous -- so ludicrous, in fact, that Larry bear (Lewis) won't deign to join him. He prefers pool-side lounging, like a great furry vacationer at some low-rent Club Med.

To beat the boredom, the bears assess the crowd of spectators in gustatory terms. When they agree a child looks delicious, they ain't using sentimental metaphors.

Needless to say, these inmates live in a pointless, maddeningly funny tedium worthy of Samuel Beckett. Lewis and Deal were spot-on and amusing. Chrissy Garrett provided an apt contrast as their keeper. Carl Walker directed the play with a droll, light touch.

Meanwhile, over at the CAC, Decafest (a weekend-long round robin of celebratory events) presented Icons: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol. 1. The icons were Sappho, Michelangelo, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Rivera and New Orleans' own Ellen DeGeneres. This list includes a wide gamut of personalities, and part of the fun of the show came from the stunning transformations that actor/singer/dancer/writer/composer Jade Esteben Estrada pulled off before our very eyes -- for he changed costumes and wigs right up there in the spotlight.

The set was an attractive, somewhat arbitrary conglomeration of costumes and wigs, lying on a long table and some chairs. The music (mostly keyboard and voice harmonies) was piped in -- but the action was timed carefully so that the music often seemed to punctuate, propel or even obey a gesture.

Sappho (who gave us "sapphic" love) lived on the isle of Lesbos (which gave us "lesbian") around 600 B.C. She was one of the most acclaimed lyric poets of ancient Greece. To me, Estrada's Sappho was a bit confusing. She sort of pranced and gurgled like a Hollywood starlet spoofing Isadora Duncan. Although the performance was assured in a campy way and the singing was fine, I wasn't sure what was intended.

Then, all of a sudden, wham! Estrada changed into a stern, intense man -- a painter. Now, he was Michelangelo. Camp went out the window. From here on, the grasp of character was strong, idiosyncratic and purposeful -- as well as immensely entertaining. The characters all explained who they were and sang a signature song about their life and struggles.

Oscar Wilde did a sort of music hall turn with a bowler hat, cape and cane. Gertrude Stein in a black dress and sensible shoes scowled at us from a chair. She scolded and lectured and won us over with her truculent pomposity -- for she graciously conceded that her friend Picasso was also a genius, perhaps even her equal.

Sylvia Rivera was a Nuyorican hustler in sparkling green short shorts, with a scarlet blouse tied across the midriff. Rivera also ricocheted between truculence and charm, though in her case the tone was decidedly "street," rather than aristo. Rivera lost her cool in a police raid (one raid too many) at a Greenwich Village gay bar. In fury, she threw her silver slingbacks (with 12-inch acetate heels) at one of New York's finest, thereby starting a riot and unintentionally launching the gay rights movement.

Finally, Ellen DeGeneres put in an appearance and -- despite the pressures and perils -- boldly "came out" as a lesbian in a national press conference.

Estrada -- who has worked as a dancer, choreographer (with Charo, no less) and has scored hits as a pop singer -- held the stage effortlessly and put on a slam-bang performance. I hope the rumors that he will return with volumes two and three of his Icons series are true.

click to enlarge Jade Esteban Estrada as Ellen DeGeneres in his one-man - show  Icons  at Decafest - PETER DIANTONI
  • Peter DiAntoni
  • Jade Esteban Estrada as Ellen DeGeneres in his one-man show Icons at Decafest


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